Winter Harvest: Teaching a successful local food model from urban Philadelphia

Final Report for LNE04-212

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $35,756.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Federal Funds: $2,700.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $9,700.00
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Brian Snyder
Pennsylvania Assoc. for Sustainable Agriculture
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Project Information

Summary:

Winter Harvest is a web-based buying club serving the Philadelphia area from which members order locally produced foods from November through April. Farm to City created Winter Harvest in 2001; current sales are $20,000 per month. Farm to City’s Winter Harvest Buying Club sales total $378,800 over its six year history.

Farm to City and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) collaborated to put on two workshops in 2005 to show others how to plan and manage a food buying club modeled after Winter Harvest.

Project funding from SARE allowed Farm to City and PASA to create a planning and operations handbook, announce the workshop, recruit and select participants, hold two workshops in early 2005, and provide technical assistance to farmers and local food activists who decided to start buying clubs throughout 2005 and 2006. Twenty individuals participated in the workshops. The handbook was the basis of the workshop; each participant received a copy.

As a result of the workshops, five farms launched buying clubs. These buying clubs sold over $31,500 of locally produced food to their members since the first one started in late 2005. Seven other farmers or food organizations have expressed interest in starting buying clubs and several of these may launch their programs in 2007. The buying clubs resulting from SARE support for the workshops can be reviewed at http://farmtocity.org. Farm to City provides website access and technical assistance anyone who wishes to review and test the management system for buying clubs.

Introduction:

The growing demand for locally produced food by residents and food businesses in large urban areas over the past decade provides large marketing opportunities for nearby farming communities. However, these opportunities are challenged by a lack of storage, transportation, marketing, and retailing infrastructure to support this demand in a way that is convenient to buyers. Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, buying clubs, and farmers selling to restaurants and small institutions are ways that farmers near urban areas can market their products directly to household and businesses. But these routes from farm to city are either not accessible or convenient enough for most urban customers. Furthermore, in temperate climates most of the directly marketed farm products are not available during the winter months.

Food buying clubs are one way to realize the local food connection, especially during winter months. Food buying clubs are an arrangement between groups of buyers and suppliers, which allows its members to purchase food from the suppliers for periodic delivery, typically once a week. Members combine their buying power to achieve specific values such as lower prices or, more recently, access to locally produced foods that are not available in supermarkets.

Farm to City created the Winter Harvest Buying Club in response to CSA member and farmers’ market customer requests for a winter program to supply them with locally produced food after the CSAs and grower only farmers’ markets closed for the winter months. We discovered that there are many farm products available during the winter months: root crops, greenhouse greens, winter apples, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables preserved by canning or drying. The program has cooperated with farmers and others in the farm community as well as local food advocates to establish the delivery and distribution infrastructure needed to increase the supply of the products available. Buying clubs like Winter Harvest are an excellent way for local food advocates to build their movement in urban areas by expanding constituencies that value locally produced food and are willing to put their food dollars in support of this value.

Winter Harvest started with about 60 members in the 2001-02 season. Members ordered $15,000 worth of locally-produced items from a list of about 100 items. The buying club has seen nearly an eight-fold growth since then. In the 2006-07 season, Winter Harvest had 250 active member who ordered over 4,000 items each month worth $20,000 from a list of over 370 different items from 37 farmers and small food businesses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Sales for the 2006-2007 season are projected to be about $115,000. Figure 1 shows the growth in sales of Winter Harvest. Winter Harvest total sales in its six -season history total $370,500.

Initially, Farm to City did marketing, member recruitment, and ordering on paper, with email, and on computer spread sheets. Gradually, these functions were shifted onto the Farm to City website so that staff manages Winter Harvest entirely through its web site and with e-mail. This transition to the web allowed Farm to City staff keep pace with increased sales.

Growth of Winter Harvest is due mainly to word-of-mouth recommendations from early members to others seeking nutrient dense, high quality food, who wish to support local family farms, options not offered by supermarkets in 2001. Most of the items that Winter Harvest offers are from certified organic farms and producers of meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products from grass-fed animals. Winter Harvest operates on a budget that returns over 70¢ of each dollar spent by its members to its suppliers, mainly small family farms, while keeping prices competitive with comparable – but usually not local – products that have recently appeared in high-end supermarkets. The remaining 30¢ goes to pay for packing, transportation, bookkeeping, and program administration.

Performance Target:

Of the over 2,500 food and farm advocates, extension agents, and community leaders who learn about the workshops and 20 will attend.

Of the 20 people attending the workshops, 10 will adapt the Winter Harvest model in their communities by December 2006.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Tom Javian
  • Bob Pierson

Research

Materials and methods:

The Buying Club Work Shop Project
In 2004, Farm to City and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture realized that other local food organizations and farmers might benefit by learning about the web-based Winter Harvest Buying Club model. After contacting several people with possible interest in learning about Winter Harvest, we determined that a workshop would be the best teaching venue.

With support from SARE, Farm to City and PASA hosted two workshops on how to create a buying club program. The workshops were held January 13-14 and February 24-25, 2005 in Philadelphia. PASA staff announced the workshops, recruited applicants, and selected participants for the workshops. At each day-and-a-half workshop, Farm to City staff showed participants how to plan, launch, and operate a buying club for their communities. Instruction included hands-on use of the management tools of Farm to City’s web data based management system. Participants met Philadelphia-area Winter Harvest members, farmer suppliers, and the delivery person on pickup day at one of the many pickup locations served.

Farm to City also provides on-going technical assistance to groups using the web software. This service will continue after the grant period. The web products demonstrated at the workshop are available to attendees and others wishing to operate a local food buying club.

The goal of this project is to transfer relational data base tools to entrepreneurs and farmers who seek to build local food distribution businesses. The project implemented five tasks to achieve this goal. Evaluation of the workshops by participants is covered in task 6.

Task 1. Design and Produce Training Materials. Farm to City staff members Bob Pierson and Tom Javian developed a manual for planning, launching and operating a web-based food buying club for use in the workshops. The manual has two parts. The first presents the tasks Farm to City recommends for setting up and operating a buying club. This part has sections titled:

Assess Potential Demand
Build Your Mailing List
Build the Product List
Find Your Site Hosts
Recruit Producers
Define the Collection Route
Define The Ordering Cycle
Finalize The Ordering and Delivery Schedule
Quality Control
The Importance of Labels
ffice Supplies and Equipment Needed

The second part of the manual is has instructions for setting up and using the web-based buying club management system.

The greatest challenge during this task was to generalize the data base management system so that is would be useful to affiliate buying clubs with a range of needs beyond those of Farm to City’s Winter Harvest. Javian created an expandable website allowing affiliates to set up their own buying club web pages that can operate in parallel to Winter Harvest. The tools that Javian created allow affiliates to:

Enter text of a buying club’s home page
Enter master and subcategories of products offered (e.g., fruit/apples or meat/beef)
Enter product lists with description, producer, and 5 price levels of each item; assign each item to a master and subcategory.
Enter profiles of each producer
Provide ordering instructions to members
Setup ordering cycles and pickup dates
Define pickup locations

After the website is set up and the buying club begins operation, the club’s manager can use the web tools to:

Create pdf files of packing lists and orders sheets for producers, member order sheets for the drop-off locations, product labels (showing member ordering, delivery date, item name, and quantity ordered), product update sheets for the next ordering cycle, and special order sheets for weighed items whose cost is not known until after the orders are placed and delivered.

Search orders by member, date, producer, delivery location and/or item.

Credit member accounts for undelivered items.

Post purchases, member payments, and adjustments to members and producers accounts.

Obtain summaries of sales by date and producer; of adjustments to sales by date, producer and member.

Obtain email addresses of members by what they order and when, new members, all members, and unprocessed applicants.

Obtain list of members’ current balances.

The website has an application form which people can use to join the buying club and select their pickup location. Applicants submit the application on-line and their information is stored in the web database. When account-opening payment is received, the program manager can convert the applicant to membership, which generates a confirming email message to the new member and allows the member to place orders. After each order cycle, members can review their account page to see their current balance and the contributing transactions: their orders, payments, and adjustments.

Task 2: Promote Winter Harvest, Recruit Participants, and Solicit Applications. PASA networked with sister organizations to promote the Winter Harvest trainings to over 2,500 potential participants. The trainings were promoted in newsletters, online forums and at summer conference workshops. PASA featured a full-length article in its bi-monthly newsletter to generate interest among our members. Given the distance some folks traveled to participate in the trainings (from as far as New Orleans) we know that we reached a wide audience in promoting the trainings.

Task 3: Review Applicants and Choose Participants. PASA received 25 applications as well as some last minute inquires and accepted all applicants into the program. There were some cancellations, so we hosted only slightly more than 10 participants in each of the two workshops, as we had originally planned. Eight of these were farmers, two were from non-profit ag agencies, and the remaining participants either managed food co-ops or were interested in starting buying clubs.

Task 4: Hold Workshop. Farm to City hosted two day-and-a-half trainings in January and February of 2005, during which Farm to City staff taught attendees how to recruit growers and consumers, develop a product list, set up deliveries, and create a website for promotion and ordering. Participants then had a chance to set up a mock buying club on computers in the workshop room using the buying club data base management system. Participants considered this hands-on training very valuable.

The workshops were held at a community center in Philadelphia that is also one of the drop-off locations for Winter Harvest. The workshops were scheduled to coincide with delivery day. At the end of the first day, participants talked to the driver and one of the farmers supplying Winter Harvest, then pitched in to assemble that week’s orders for the 13 Winter Harvest members picking up at the workshop location. Later participants met some of these members and discussed how the buying club works for them.

Perhaps just as important as those who adapted the technology for their future or existing business are several participants who realized through the trainings that the software did not meet their needs.

Task 5: Workshop Follow Up. Since the workshops, Farm to City has developed a service to assist affiliates to set up their own buying club web pages. Farm to City allows farmers and local food advocates to test the web software before making a decision to use it commercially. Once the decision is made to launch a buying club, Farm to City provides affiliates with several hours a month of technical support during startup. Farm to City does not charge a fee for these services. Once affiliates launch their buying clubs, Farm to City charges them 3% of their sales to offset its costs in maintaining the service.

Task 6: Evaluation. Participants evaluated the course and overwhelmingly agreed that the trainings were presented in a professional manner and contained valuable information. Below are comments we received from participants.

“The response of those of us attending the workshop was obviously exceptional as everyone, to my knowledge, plans to expand their programs with your software. The impact of this on farm sales will be significant.”

“Thank you for putting together such a worth-while workshop. I truly believe that your model for setting up regional online buying clubs that support local producers has the potential for huge impact in the sustainable agriculture community. Not only does this model offer ways to serve farmers and their customers in the winter months, but it can serve as a year-round tool for creating and effectively managing buying clubs of families and individuals who want to eat fresh and support local producers. Hats off to you and your development team!”

“Your workshop was spectacular, and the energy and intelligence you have invested in Farm to City over the past four years is readily evident. I am amazed and extremely grateful you were willing to share your knowledge. It may save me and other farmers a vast amount of trouble and time to be able to use your internet ordering system.

“Thank you for such a wonderful, inspiring meeting. Thank you for sharing your hard-earned knowledge with others in an effort to bring America back to eat at her own table.”

“I really enjoyed this workshop and got a lot out of it! We were given a tremendous amount of information in a short time, but also the resources necessary to assimilate this information and put it to use in the coming weeks. I am excited and looking forward to working on this project in my community.”

Research results and discussion:

1. Of the over 2,500 food and farm advocates, extension agents, and community leaders who learn about the workshops and 20 will attend. We met these targets in 2004 and 2005.

2. Of the 20 people attending the workshops, 10 will adapt the Winter Harvest model in their communities by December 2006. We did not fully meet this target.

Farm to City has assisted five farmers to start buying clubs. One workshop attendee is a CSA farmer who uses Farm to City’s buying club web tools to offer farm products to his members to supplement their CSA shares. Farm to City developed another web product for this farmer that allows his CSA members to make their selections on-line each week from all the crops that are ready for harvest. The web database generates pdf files for picking and packing each member’s box. This CSA member-choice web product is an indirect result of the SARE grant and is available to any CSA farm through Farm to City for a small sales-based fee.

Two other farmers participating in the workshops have started buying clubs in their communities, each one offering products from their own farms as well as those from their neighbors. A fourth farmer, who discovered the availability of the website after the workshops, started a buying club in New York with a neighboring farm. A fifth farmer is a former supplier to Winter Harvest who has set up his own web pages on Farm to City’s web site to sell his meat products.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Farm to City staff members Bob Pierson and Tom Javian developed a manual for planning, launching and operating a web-based food buying club for use in the workshops. A copy of this manual is on file with NE SARE.

The workshop and the buying club model was summarized in an article in the February 2005 issue of New Farm, a web magazine and in PASA’s bi-monthly newsletter, PASSAGES.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Together, the five buying club programs developed as a result of this project have recorded $31,543 in sales in from their start in late 2005 through December 2006. Local farms and small value-added food businesses produce, in the communities served, most of the products offered through these buying clubs.

Economic Analysis

Economic analysis was not a part of this project, but we can infer from the ongoing development of the five buying clubs that sales to through the clubs represent another viable market for farmers.

Farmer Adoption

All five attendees who went on to use the Farm to City buying club models are farmers. These farmers are using the buying club tools to streamline their own businesses or to start buying clubs in their local communities. Please refer to the narrative of this report for more detail.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.